On the streets of Tehran the real story from inside the Islamic Republic is being written. And Iran’s Mullahs are worried. The people are rioting, as they have for the last year. And as commentators struggle to project their own views onto Iranians, Iranians themselves are finally making their voices heard.
Events following the assassination of Qassem Soleimani has shown us the ability of some Western commentators to make any drama in the region about themselves. As each stage of the crisis has developed, they have assured us of impending consequences that suit their own agendas rather than any reality on the ground.
We were told that Soleimani’s killing would bring war to the region, as if Soleimani had not already been inflicting war on the Syrian people.
We were told his death would bring reprisals; it did. Iran attacked an Iraqi base, inflicting no casualties. But Syrians over the past few years have suffered in their hundreds of thousands in Iranian revenge attacks. This year alone, dozens have already been killed and more maimed at the hands of the Iranian-sponsored and Russian-controlled Syrian regime.
Then a plane was shot down. Despite being described as a “crash” by Jeremy Corbyn, it was clear from the outset that the fate of Ukraine Airlines Flight 752 was not caused by a mere mid-air malfunction. Tehran, of course, denied any responsibility. It refused to hand over the plane’s black box. It bulldozed the crash site. It began to cover up.
Then video footage emerged showing the plane being hit by a missile. Other clips, showing the incident from various angles, followed. Open source investigators Bellingcat and others like them proved that the aircraft was struck with a missile from inside Iran.
This still wasn’t enough for some Western cranks and hard left journalists who insisted the Mullahs were innocent: victims, yet again, of ‘imperialist propaganda’ designed to set the tom toms beating for war against Iran.
But this was short-lived: it’s hard to embarrass those who won’t be embarrassed. For some, things were only getting worse. We were now on the brink of a dreaded US v Iran conflict that would bring World War III. Iranian people had united behind the regime in opposition to the killing of Soleimani; they would not be moved.
This was nonsense. True, people came out on to the streets to mourn Soleimani. But then they came out to blame the regime for Iran’s ills. They demanded justice, and retribution. And they were not only protesting the deaths of 176 passengers. They chanted, in clear voices, for the end of the regime: ‘America is not the enemy,’ they roared. ‘The enemy is in Iran’.
Once more, images of Iran’s youth have gone global. Students of Tehran university, young women in black headscarves, chanting against supreme leader Ali Khamenei; a young woman confronting a soldier; videos showing the regime allegedly shooting at protestors with live fire. And all the while Iran’s youth shouts back: ‘Be-sharaf, Be-sharaf’ (Shameless! Shameless!) at the state’s security apparatus.
For now, the regime appears to have backed down from repression and mass murder. It is rattled. And well it should be. Despite the dangers to their own lives, Iranians are making it clear that the regime – and not the ‘Great Satan’ – is the oppressor of the Iranian people. They have called not for death to America but rather for ‘death to the Islamic Republic.’ According to BBC Monitoring even Iranian State Television has reported in detail on protests.
Tehran is scrambling to placate the people and international opinion. But it is too little too late. It is now almost impossible to convince anyone – save the most extreme loyalists and conspiracy theorists – that what we have seen is anything but an organic and popular uprising on the streets of Iran.
What comes next will be critical. The world’s eyes are on Iran. This has almost certainly stopped the regime from once more massacring people in the streets.
How long this forbearance will last remains unclear. After all, we have witnessed the world’s most documented genocide take place over the course of many years in Syria. It has been on our TV screens and in our inboxes to no avail. Syria taught us perhaps one lesson above all others: without real political will backed by the threat of meaningful action, things can turn deadly very quickly.
But if one thing the last year in Iran has made clear, it is that people will not stop. And they will need more from us than just our punditry.
Trump and US secretary of state Mike Pompeo have made statements reassuring Iranians that they stand with them. Trump even tweeted in Farsi.
‘To the brave, long-suffering people of Iran: I’ve stood with you since the beginning of my Presidency, and my Administration will continue to stand with you. We are following your protests closely, and are inspired by your courage.’
It is reported to be the most widely-read tweet in Persian language Twitter. Will this statement of solidarity result in genuine, tangible support with meaningful consequences for the regime? Consistency is not a virtue one associates with Donald Trump. But now is the time not for mere rhetoric but for substance. We owe it to the people of Iran.
David Patrikarakos is a writer. His most recent book is War in 140 Characters: How Social Media is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-First Century. Rashad Ali is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue